Speaking at Food Manufacture’s Reformulate 2011 conference in London yesterday, Dr Clair Baynton - deputy director, nutrition science and delivery at the Dept of Health (DoH) - said an announcement was due “in the next few weeks”, although FoodManufacture.co.uk understands that February 28 has been pencilled into the departmental diary.
While Baynton would not reveal precisely what commitments manufacturers would be invited to sign up to, the first three pledges would focus on salt reduction, trans fats and out-of-home calorie labelling, she said.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said they were still talking to the DoH over the final wording of the pledges, but confirmed they would build on the Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) 2012 targets for salt and recent calorie labelling work for caterers.
'Witch hunt' no way to change behaviour
While health secretary Andrew Lansley has said in the past that a "witch hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars” was not the way to change behaviour, he was keen to maintain the momentum created by the FSA, BRC assistant director of food policy Andrea Martinez-Inchausti added.
"What I can say is that the pledges will not be blurry and broad, but will contain tangible commitments building on all the good work that has already been done.There is no point re-inventing the wheel here."
But Lansley appeared to be “more mindful [than the previous government] that we are commercial companies and that a partnership approach with all of the stakeholders is needed”, she added.
Lists of retailers, manufacturers and other stakeholders signing up to the new pledges would be published to “show who is committed”, added Baynton, whose team switched from the FSA to the DoH in October. “We will also be carrying out our own monitoring and evaluation.”
Does reformulation work?
As to whether all the time and money spent on reformulating foods had improved public health, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) director general professor Judy Buttriss said much of the reduction in salt and saturated fat intakes in recent years had been achieved because big brands had reformulated mainstream products, and not because consumers had changed their food choices.
Kellogg’s Nutrition business partner Sara Collie agreed that, while educating shoppers was important, years working in public health had made her realise that changing consumer behaviour was difficult, and in some cases “virtually impossible”, which meant manufacturers had to "do it for them".
Law of diminishing returns
However, in some areas, firms were now reaching a point where further reductions in salt, fat and sugar were not possible without using ingredients that compromised clean-label policies or by employing costly novel processing technologies, said Collie.
And when it came to the trade-off between achieving further reductions in salt or sugar and maintaining clean labels, keeping clean labels won out every time, she added: “We’ve got to make a judgement call about what our consumers want and clean-label will win over taking out saturated fat and sodium.”
Buttriss said it was a moot point whether the industry's unwillingness to compromise on clean labels to achieve larger reductions in salt, fat or sugar was justified, suggesting that avoiding 'nasties' was arguably diverting attention from more important public health issues such as tackling obesity, achieving adequate nutrient intakes and avoiding excessive fat, salt and sugar.
“From a public health perspective, the move toward clean label could be potentially getting in the way of progress."
Coca-Cola's director of scientific and regulatory affairs Helen Munday agreed, stressing that this was particularly evident in soft drinks, where the “baggage” associated with certain intense sweeteners and the “lack of balanced debate” about their benefits was a source of constant frustration.
'Fat Consultant' Geoff Talbot said regulatory factors were also thwarting progress, both in terms of restricting what claims firms are allowed to make on packs and reducing their ability to change recipes in certain products (chocolate, ice cream) without breaching compositional rules.
Food manufacturers are also keen for 'X% less fat/sugar/salt' claims to be added to the annex of nutrition claims permitted under the EU health claims regulation to reflect their reformulation efforts, said FDF director of food safety and science Barbara Gallani.
As things currently stand, she said, 'reduced fat/salt/sugar' claims are only permitted where firms have made very significant (25% or 30%) cuts, which provides little incentive to make smaller, incremental changes.
A full write-up of the conference, which was chaired by Campden BRI director general Professor Steven Walker and sponsored by Exova, will be included in the March issue of Food Manufacture magazine.